Paul Finch’s Letter from London: The capital must stand up to Paris ideologues UNESCO over calls for a development-free zone
What a summer it has been, with architectural highlights in London and Venice, where the Biennale has provided the usual wonderful mix of the brilliant and the bizarre. The architecture and design calendar, both locally and globally, is pretty full these days, with many cities running their own festivals or biennale events. The decision by London Festival of Architecture organisers to go annual seems sensible given the level of activity in the capital, and its strengthened status as a world city.
London’s status, and that of its architecture, continues to exercise the unelected, unaccountable, and technically powerless folk at UNESCO, who continue their campaign of trying to turn central London into a freeze-framed, development-free zone – if the development can be seen from so-called ‘world heritage sites’ like the Palace of Westminster.
As we have remarked here before, it is one thing to be concerned about development which may damage views of an important building or cluster. It is quite another to protect views from them. Does anybody imagine for one moment that Pugin and Barry produced their 19th century confection because it offered particular views of the wharves and warehouses of the South Bank? Of course not. Was the Tower of London designed to give views of not much across the river. Non.
What the ideologues from Paris are doing is to take that city’s model of development (centre in aspic, immigrants in shanty towns well away from les vrais Français), invent a spurious picturesque notion of townscape and vista, and impose it wherever they feel they can prove they are still as tough on developed nations as they were when they imposed management regimes for real world heritage sites such as the Egyptian pyramids.
UNESCO is a great big phoney and the Greater London Authority, Liverpool City Council and any other UK city authority should invite them to get on their bikes and go somewhere else. We don’t need UNESCO because we have English Heritage, but Paris has one lever it can exercise on us – through our Department of Culture, which is obliged to pay attention to this nonsense because of signed agreements which, though unenforceable, have moral authority.
It is unfortunate that the minister with responsibility for architecture (including new buildings) does not have the formal title of minister for architecture. Instead he is minister for, wait for it, heritage and tourism. UNESCO loves this because it neatly ties together its argument for that preservation freeze-frame, allied to revenue-generating business. No one loves a world heritage site more than a travel agent.
The last time UNESCO muscled the UK government, over the Walkie Talkie tower designed by Rafael Viñoly for Land Securities, we had the grotesque spectacle of a minister of the crown calling in for inquiry, out of the blue, a proposal that had full planning permission from the City of London, support from CABE, and no demand for an inquiry from English Heritage. Why the call-in? Because the minister was going to a UNESCO boondoggle in New Zealand and wanted to seem a team player. The consequence was a vastly expensive waste of time, with the predictable result that the permission was upheld, even though the development is far nearer the Tower of London than the Shard, which UNESCO is obsessively worried about.
This is not the sort of basis for making decisions that we need in a city like London. I hope that Mayor Boris and Sir Edward Lister, who seem robust on this issue, continue to worry about London’s real future. We don’t need a cultural-cringe version of the entente cordiale.